In 2019, SANNI worked at a call center in Temple, Texas, writing song lyrics between calls, when a realization swept over him: “I’m not supposed to be here.”
Ordinarily, when artists make these sorts of claims, there’s no reason to put stock in them. No one is “supposed” to be anywhere. Spoken by SANNI, however, a 24-year-old pop/R&B singer with a vocal tone reminiscent of Pink Sweat$, these words carry weight. By the time the singer-songwriter-producer-instrumentalist hyphenate moved back to Texas in 2019, he’d successfully auditioned for American Idol, completed his first tour, and released a handful of catchy songs that had amassed hundreds of thousands of streams. He’d laid the foundation for a successful career, but things just didn’t feel right.
It took SANNI leaving Los Angeles, where he’d lived since his stint on American Idol, to reignite his musical passions. “That was the moment when I was like, ‘I’m just gonna throw the kitchen sink at this,’” he says. “There’s no way I’m allowing this to be a shoulda-coulda-woulda moment.”
Since moving back to LA, SANNI has spent his time tightening his instincts as a songwriter, sharpening his talents as a lyricist, learning to produce music, and banking a collection of songs that mark a step forward in his artistic evolution. The music, a mixtape entitled If You Don’t Understand It’s OK, out April 16, is a collection of eight songs marked by pliable melodies, delightful cadences, genuine introspection, and SANNI’s peppy vocal tone. It’s the assured project of an artist who is doing exactly what they’re meant to do.
Talk to me about how music entered your life growing up.
I was kind of forced into it, to be completely honest. I was a part of this youth ministry at church in Houston; my dad wanted me to be a part of it. I was nine at the time, and I remember being nervous about it because I’d never done anything in the arts. But the first day, we were learning how to C-walk, and it was the most fun I’d ever had. I was there for at least six or seven years after that. I started off learning how to sing, dance, and act, and then I ended up teaching other kids how to do those things at 15 or 16.
What was the moment you knew music had to be your path in life?
When I was 15, I auditioned for American Idol, and I got on the show with four “yeses.” With my parents being foreign, they were very gung ho about school and being in the medical field, or being a lawyer, but being on the show was the first time when they were like, “I guess there’s something here.” So, my parents uprooted their lives, and we moved to LA. That’s where I really started to grind it out, hone my craft, and write on a higher level.
But, honestly, it wasn’t until 2019 when I decided to move back with my family to Texas, when things clicked. My parents were building a house in Texas—and they’re living their best life right now—but at a certain point in 2019, we lived in the middle of nowhere, waiting for the house to be built. We were all putting money aside for it. I was working at a call center. I was answering calls and writing lyrics.
I realized, “I’m not supposed to be here.” I remember telling my parents, “This is not what I’m called to do right now in this life.” I made the decision to move back to LA at the bottom of 2019 with my roommate. That was the moment when I was like, “I’m just gonna throw the kitchen sink at this.” There’s no way I’m allowing this to be a shoulda-coulda-woulda moment. I was like, “This is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.”
The name of your new project is If You Don’t Understand It’s OK. What’s the genesis of that? Is being misunderstood something you’ve had to contend with in the past?
When I was first starting out, being a Black artist in the pop-crossover world was hard for people to understand. It made no sense to me because a big thing I pride myself on is my versatility. I think versatility goes a long way in the industry, so it was a big disconnect for me, and I was jaded about that. But during my introspective moment in Temple, and through learning how to produce music and being confident in my craft, I realized it’s okay if people don’t understand—especially the industry. The consumers will understand. The music I’m creating is music that resonates, and I believe that with everything.
On top of that, I’ve always been a big fan of Drake, Post Malone, and Frank Ocean, and these are people who are influential to my craft right now. But, with Drake, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late was a cool project to me. Drake was in his own pocket, and it was just a mixtape of records that exuded a lot of confidence. I loved it, and I feel like there’s a lot of confidence in this project I’m putting out. I wanted to pay homage.
From a personal perspective, I want people to know, if you don’t understand where you are in life or what the next chapter is—it’s okay. It’s okay to take that first step and learn as you go. It all just stemmed from a sense of feeling comfortable in my space, and in my artistry, and comfortable living in a studio apartment, working out of my kitchen. I understand where I am in life, and I know this time next year, it won’t be the same.